The Maple Leafs got the easy part out of the way on Wednesday.
With all due respect to the Philadelphia Flyers, a club playing with increased determination under new coach John Tortorella, we don’t imagine the Leafs spent an off-day on Thursday walking around Toronto bragging that they had beaten the Flyers.
In ending a four-game losing streak, the Leafs did what they were supposed to do — trounce a lesser team, no matter what the standings have said about the Flyers in the early stages of the 2022–23 regular season.
The fact remains that the Leafs have underachieved through their first 11 games, compiling a record of 5-4-2. For the first time in franchise history, the Leafs have erased a one-goal deficit in each of their first five wins in a season. That’s commendable, but the Leafs can’t expect to continue to get behind in games and win, especially when the level of competition is about to spike.
Losses against Arizona, San Jose and Anaheim, three of the worst teams in the National Hockey League, also have been part of the equation.
Through the first few weeks, no one can say with certainty which version of the Leafs will take the ice on any night, an inconsistency that is on all of them, including coach Sheldon Keefe.
Now, the schedule will present much greater challenges, starting on Saturday when the Boston Bruins visit. The Leafs’ Atlantic Division rival owned a .900 points percentage, the best in the NHL, heading into its game on Thursday in New York against the Rangers.
The Leafs will have a quick turnaround, hitting the road on Sunday to play the Carolina Hurricanes, who won six of their first nine prior to Thursday. And then the Vegas Golden Knights, 10-2 in their first 12, make their lone visit to Toronto on Tuesday.
The Leafs were improved in their execution and breakouts against Philadelphia, not that Toronto spent much time in its own end during five-on-five play against a team that played the night before. The Leafs are going to have to be that much sharper in each of their next three games, and the results will give us a better idea of who the Leafs are, certainly more than what the victory against the Flyers might have indicated.
“We’ll take the good, take the bad and move on,” Auston Matthews said late Wednesday night. “We definitely want to continue to elevate our pace, elevate our competitiveness. We’re going to continue to need to take steps moving forward.”
The Leafs will return to practice on Friday.
“Instead of looking at how many games, how many opponents we have, let’s just focus on Friday and improving what was good (against the Flyers),” captain John Tavares said.
Keefe is optimistic that the Leafs will start getting solidity in their bottom six forwards.
Zach Aston-Reese appears to be getting traction, while Keefe was satisfied with Pontus Holmberg after the latter’s NHL debut on Wednesday.
“I’m happy to get him in here and get him involved,” Keefe said of Holmberg. “From what he has shown me, I think he has a future in the league.
“We’ll see as each day goes how it fits, but we think we’ve got a good player there who is going to play a role for us this year.”
Aston-Reese’s goal against the Flyers represented his first point with the Leafs. Twice, recently, he was a healthy scratch.
“We’ve taken him out of the lineup here and there, really not for anything that he has or hasn’t done, but just trying to get other people involved,” Keefe said. “What I’ve talked about with all these guys that are coming in and out is they haven’t necessarily done anything wrong. It’s just you haven’t made a statement that ‘I should be in this lineup.’
“(Aston-Reese) is taking steps toward that. He knows who he is. He knows what his job is.”
Said Aston-Reese, who earned a contract after coming to camp on a PTO: “Away from the rink, finally got an apartment, settling down a little bit, getting into a routine. It took a little bit, but I’m finally getting (comfortable).”
Keefe is bound to have some new defense pairs on Friday with the impending return of Timothy Liljegren, who is slated to make his season debut against Boston after recovering from hernia surgery… Goalie Ilya Samsonov had a simple plan for the off-day: “Stay in bed.” … Before the season started, oddsmakers at BetOnline.ag had Keefe the favorite to be the first coach fired at 13/2. In the latest odds released on Thursday by the gambling site, Bruce Boudreau of the Vancouver Canucks is the favorite at 5/1, while Keefe has dropped to 18/1 … Keefe figured that Mark Giordano’s defense of Matthews, coming when Giordano tackled Flyers forward Travis Konecny late in the game on Wednesday, is the kind of thing to help bring the Leafs closer. After Morgan Rielly did something similar in a Leafs victory in Winnipeg against the Jets on Oct. 22, jumping Josh Morrissey following the latter’s hit on Nick Robertson, the Leafs lost their next four games … Tavares has 398 career goals, putting him in line to be the first player from the 2009 draft to score 400. Next after Tavares from the ‘ 09 draft is Nashville’s Matt Duchene, who had 296 goals before Thursday.